Chocolate isn?t a hard sell for most customers. In fact, few foods inspire as much passion as chocolate does, turning an otherwise mild-mannered person into a raving ?chocoholic.? But with so many varieties and flavorings of chocolate now available, the real challenge for both store buyers and customers may be simply choosing among them.
And the differences among chocolates are significant. The quality of ingredients, the lack of artificial additives or sweeteners, as well as the chocolatier?s skill, are all essential elements that go into making a superb, premium chocolate. Naturals store buyers face additional issues, such as seeking out chocolates that are made from all-organic ingredients, or chocolates that are purchased from producers or growers who conform to fair trade policies.
From cacao to candy
Although there is a wide array of chocolate products to choose from, all real chocolate starts out the same—derived from cocoa beans from the cacao tree. Green & Black?s gourmet organic chocolate begins its journey from bean to bar in cocoa plantations in the rain forests of Central America, says Chris Samuel, the company?s vice president of marketing.
?The cocoa pods containing the cocoa beans are harvested in their peak of ripeness,? Samuel says, noting that each pod contains about 45 beans. ?The beans are carefully removed from the pod and fermented under banana leaves for five days before they?re laid out to dry in the sun. Next the beans are shipped to our factory in northern Italy, where we roast the cocoa nibs. The roasted nibs are then very finely ground to make a thick, creamy-textured cocoa mass, which is mixed together with organic Bourbon vanilla. The chocolate-refining process, known as ?conching,? ensures that the chocolate is heated and stirred for a whole day. Finally the chocolate is expertly tempered, giving it the ?gloss? and ?snap? associated with quality chocolate.?
Three main varieties of cacao beans, each with numerous sub-classifications, are used to make cocoa: criollo, forastero and trinitario. Pete Slosberg, founder of Cocoa Pete?s Chocolates (and before that, of Pete?s Wicked Ale), says that the type of bean used is an essential element in the final chocolate product.
?The flavor in chocolate comes from many aspects, but the variety of cacao is a very important factor,? Slosberg says. ?If you think of chocolate like wines, where there are 200 flavor descriptors of wine, it?s the same thing with chocolate?no one strain of cacao will give you that range. If you want different flavor and aroma profiles, the best way to get it is by blending different beans. The chocolatier is like an artist who can take a mix of beans, using different beans from different sources, all depending on what [he?s] trying to achieve with the end product.? Slosberg says other elements, including local growing conditions, humidity, water temperature and roasting conditions, have a tremendous impact on the flavor. Both dark and milk chocolate are derived from chocolate liquor, the name for the product that is produced when the cocoa bean nibs are ground into liquid before being processed into sweetened chocolate. White chocolate is actually derived from cocoa butter instead of chocolate liquor, and contains no nonfat cocoa solids, so it?s quite different from both dark and milk chocolate.
Government regulations require that dark chocolate contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor, and milk chocolate must contain a minimum of 10 percent. But premium chocolate manufacturers distinguish their products by putting in considerably more chocolate liquor than the government?s minimum. ?You can save money by putting in the minimum amount of chocolate, but you?re going to get a lower chocolate flavor profile,? says Slosberg. ?As you add more and more cacao percentage, you get a stronger chocolate flavor, and less of the chocolate is derived from sugar. Dark chocolate has a whole range depending on how much pure chocolate is added. In general, the more pure chocolate you put in the bar, the stronger the chocolate flavor.?
Savor the flavor
In addition to looking for the percentage of pure chocolate in the bar, Jon Stocking, owner of Endangered Species Chocolate (a chocolate company that donates 10 percent of its profits to animal preservation), offers several tips for buyers to distinguish premium chocolates. ?People eat with their eyes as much as their mouth, so good packaging is important,? Stocking says. ?Once you unwrap the bar, you want to look for a very high sheen or shine on the chocolate. When you snap it, it should have a very noticeable snap to it. When you taste it, let it roll around on your tongue and melt in your mouth—that?s a good way to test if the chocolate has a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. With premium chocolate, you?re looking for more of a subtle flavor, rather than something that hits you over the head."
Stocking says it?s equally important for store buyers to consider whether a bar is derived from premium ingredients, including organic ingredients. ?A good buyer should look at the ingredient list,? Stocking says. ?In general, we?re very cognizant of keeping our ear to the ground as far as identifying any ingredients that might be deemed harmful. In the chocolates we make, we don?t include corn syrup—instead we sweeten with water-filtered beet sugar. Our soy is from a non-GMO source—these are all important elements for creating a truly premium chocolate.?
Stocking says his company offers a line of organic products. ?The quality of organic chocolate has gotten so much better over the years; it?s really encouraging. Organic milk tastes much better than nonorganic milk, and our organic chocolate tastes better than commercial chocolate.?
All of Green & Black?s chocolates are organic. ?We use organic trinitario and criollo beans to make Green & Black?s chocolate,? says Samuel. ?Organic chocolate such as ours combines the ultimate in quality ingredients, as well as farming and production methods, which delivers the best possible taste, while still protecting the environment.? While Cocoa Pete?s chocolates are not certified organic, Slosberg says they are made from all-natural ingredients.
The politics of chocolate
Another issue that affects natural foods buyers is fair trade. Green & Black?s and Endangered Species Chocolates both adhere to fair trade standards. ?Green & Black?s Maya Gold chocolate was the first product to ever carry the fair trade logo when it was launched in Great Britain in 1994,? Samuel says. ?It?s important to buy fair traded chocolate since it guarantees an agreed, fixed price to farmers who depend on this income for their livelihoods. The price is good and it protects farmers from fluctuations, which means that their incomes are steady.?
Stocking says education is essential to help customers understand why premium chocolate costs more. ?I would suggest allowing us manufacturers to help in that respect,? he says. ?It?s long been our intention to educate—we?re a messenger for our cause, which is [helping] endangered species as well as [promoting] fair trade. We can provide shelf talkers—brochures we?ve put together to educate consumers—which can be a wonderful way to help customers understand the quality of higher cocoa-content chocolate. We also are always trying to educate the people who do a store?s demos, helping them to explain to consumers about quality, how to choose good chocolate and how to eat and enjoy a good chocolate. That last part is an important part of the educational process for the consumer; just as important as selecting the right chocolate is learning how to savor and enjoy a really fine chocolate.?
Lynn Ginsburg is the author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin?s Press, 2003).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 12/p. 28, 30, 32